Research

I study the production and use of knowledge — particularly economic knowledge — in a variety of organizational contexts. I am particularly interested in the political effects of “neutral” numbers and techniques and in the values that guide economic action.

Currently, my main project looks at how an economic style of reasoning, grounded in the discipline of economics but also circulated through law and policy schools, became institutionalized in various parts of the U.S. policy process. Drawing on antipoverty policy, antitrust policy, environmental policy, and a number of other cases, I argue that the economic style was spread more by Democrats who wanted to improve government than Republicans who wanted to shrink it. In the long run, however, the economic style proved more politically constraining to the left than the right, shaping the range of policy options that could legitimately be considered.

This project grew out of my first book, which asked why academic science became more entrepreneurial and market-oriented after the 1980s. I found that the main reason was not universities’ search for new resources or industry’s desire to outsource its research, but policy changes driven by a new idea: that technological innovation drives economic growth. This unexpected finding of the political importance of an economic idea led me to questions about exactly how economic reasoning shapes the policy process.

I am planning future research along two main lines. One is a series of papers on the political effects of quantification. How can a change in measurement restructure political possibilities? And how do organizations come to choose particular forms of quantification?

The other is a book project on how the social sciences are responding to the reproducibility crisis. While all social science disciplines have been touched by this crisis to some extent, their responses have been quite different. How do existing institutions and epistemic cultures intersect to produce such varying reactions, and how successful are those reactions at restoring confidence — both internal and external — in their findings?

While these are my current areas of focus, my broader interests are wide-ranging. I particularly follow research on higher education, debt (including student debt), the transformation of work, racial and economic inequality, algorithms and big data, and regulatory politics and the administrative state.

I am a card-carrying member of the Society of People Interested in Boring Things.